Sunday, January 3, 2016


"The secularisation of exegesis stems from a more general anti-supernatural rationalism that has been present and growing since the "Enlightenment". If one denies the reality of God and his active guidance of creation, then it follows that one will deny the concept of an inspired Scripture that gives us objective divine revelation and the key to understanding history."
 I was well schooled in the Historical/Critical Method of Biblical exegesis. My mentor who was a Sulpician at my academically superior seminary of the USA, St. Mary's, Roland Park, was Fr. Raymond Brown, SS of happy memory; God rest his soul. I really, really admired him and his work and he was a gentleman and a Churchman! I did not find him to be reactionary at all in the 1970's. I also had Fr. John Kselman, SS for Old Testament. He was excellent and others formed by Fr. Brown.

But with that said, there were some who used this method of biblical interpretation that led them down the path of liberal Protestantism which developed it over a 100 years ago. This led them to seek the historical Jesus' as though the Jesus of the Bible was a fake. This led them to question the Immaculate Conception as it has no basis in the Bible (and thus it led them to question, like Protestants, and then throw out Tradition or reinterpret Tradition as subservient to the historical/critical method). It also led them to reject the perpetual virginity of Mary, the Virgin birth, the miracles of Jesus (always understood as having a natural cause not supernatural). It led to denying the bodily resurrection of Jesus, his ascension and the Pentecost Event. The Holy Spirit was interpreted as any other kind of "spirit" would be, not supernatural but natural, like school spirit. In this case it was more psychological than theological. For example, simply to remember something from the past made it present, even though a vague memory.

This method of interpreting Scripture has had ramifications for the Liturgy and its dumbing down (resourcement) and for the crisis in Catholicism resulting from it. It leads to a very low Christology and focuses purely on the historical Jesus stripped of divinity. This leads to an immanent understanding and expression of the Liturgy over a transcendent one. Thus the horizontal in ceremony and architecture rule the day leading to the iconoclasm of the traditional Liturgy as foisted on the Church by academic liturgists informed by the historical critical method of biblical interpretation since Pope Pius XII allowed for this method in his landmark encyclical in 1942. 

This method of biblical interpretation  has thus produced reactionary factions, what some might call Catholic fundamentalists just as the original Protestant version of liberal exegesis produced Protestant Fundamentalism by the 1920's as a reactionary movement against this method of Scripture Study that destroys the Jesus of the Bible and historic Christianity. 

And thus enters Pope Benedict with his hermeneutic of reform in continuity, a true gift to the Church of the 21st century! He pointed out in his books as pope the benefits and dangers of the historical critical method and sought a reform of it. He hits the nail on the head.

Here is an excellent article from Faith Magazine on Pope Benedict's reform of this method. You can read the full article by pressing this sentence.

Below are some excerpts: 

Beyond Historical Criticism: Pope Benedict XVI and the Reform of Biblical Exegesis

Article: 01.01.09 

 The Historical-Critical method of biblical exegesis has dominated scripture study for more than a hundred years. Despite the uneasiness of many theologians, and especially the faithful, about the way this method has been conducted, few have dared to challenge its presuppositions, implications and exclusivity. One figure who has consistently called for a re-evaluation, purification and augmentation of the prevalent method of biblical exegesis is Joseph Ratzinger. Now as Pope Benedict XVI his contribution in this crucial area of theology will be all the more influential.

In his book Jesus of Nazareth, Joseph Ratzinger calls us to move beyond mere historical-criticism to a more profoundly theological reading of Scripture.[1] He acknowledges that a truly historical approach is necessary, but while it only deals with the isolated past as past it "does not exhaust the interpretive task for someone who sees the biblical writings as a single corpus of Holy Scripture inspired by God".[2] In expressing this point Ratzinger subtly shifts the debate away from an assessment of what the historical-critical method has achieved or not to a new openness for something which goes much further than historical-criticism itself.

Critical historical exegesis during the past hundred years has undoubtedly aided unprecedented advancements in our biblical knowledge: in the better understanding of literary genres, source history and textual composition; in etymology and archaeology; in the penetration of ancient languages and cultural settings. Nevertheless, at no other time has there been such a crisis in relating our faith to the findings of modern research. This problem is felt most acutely in relation to the person of Jesus Christ himself. Many scholars have separated the 'Jesus of history' from the 'Christ of faith' and in doing so have severed theology and doctrine from reason and reality. The potential fall-out from this trend is worrying: "Intimate friendship with Jesus, on which everything depends, is in danger of clutching at thin air".[3]

.... Ratzinger comments that the great synthesis found in the traditional Christian interpretation, "would become problematic when historical consciousness developed rules of interpretation that made Patristic exegesis appear non-historical and so objectively indefensible".[4]
...Twenty years ago Joseph Ratzinger observed:

Modern exegesis, as we have seen, completely relegated God to the incomprehensible, the otherworldly, and the inexpressible in order to be able to treat the biblical text itself as an entirely worldly reality according to natural-scientific methods.[5]

...The secularisation of exegesis stems from a more general anti-supernatural rationalism that has been present and growing since the "Enlightenment". If one denies the reality of God and his active guidance of creation, then it follows that one will deny the concept of an inspired Scripture that gives us objective divine revelation and the key to understanding history.

When historical criticism, whose "specific object is the human word as human",[6] is used by a rationalist scholar as the exclusive approach to Scripture, then faith is necessarily banished out of exegesis. Furthermore, when dogmatic belief in a unified corpus of Scripture is excluded any connection between the Old and New Testaments is rendered utterly tenuous.  

As Ratzinger has noted:
The triumph of historical-critical exegesis seemed to sound the death knell for the Christian interpretation of the Old Testament initiated by the New Testament itself. It is not a question here of historical details, as we have seen, it is the very foundations of Christianity that are being questioned.[7]


Fr. Michael J. Kavanaugh said...

I agree with Pope Benedict. As I already said, there are right ways and wrong ways to use the historical-critical method.

Anonymous said...


"I love Benedict XVI and his writings, I wish he were a personal friend of mine. Fr. K, you are no Benedict XVI."

gob said...

And Anonymous, you're no Lloyd Bentsen. Pretty lame try....

Anonymous said...


Go back to your cage!

JBS said...

It seems to me that Father Kavanaugh made a reasonable and respectful comment, which surely should be treated as such by other commenters.

James Ignatius McAuley said...

I agree with Father Kavenaugh's comment. There is a right and wrong way to use historical criticism. When we use it, for example, to determine that a manuscript is by the great Origen, that is good and useful to the faith. When we use the methodology of historic criticism to create a "Jesus of Faith," a "Jesus of history" and a "Jesus of scripture" then we have a problem, reminding me of the two Christs of Nestorius.

I saw enough friends lose their faith as a result of slavishly following the teachings of biblical scholars who could not see beyond the confines of their methodology. The historical critical method is good, to a point, but to treat it as the paramount and primary way of interpreting scripture is like treating the scholastic method as the paramount and primary way to approach theology - you can only go so far before the methodology becomes captive to itself and causes a divorce between the classroom and liturgy, devotion and catechetics/apologetics.

I have returned to a patristic approach to scripture with one wye on data supplied by the historical critical method. But, when push comes to shove, For example, I prefer Origen or Chrysostom who talk of the spirit of God over the waters in the beginning of Genesis (the sense is spirit of God, as Jerome tangentially discusses this word in his Commentary on Jeremiah) than some goof (ignorant of patristics and how the Father's found scripture) who literally translates it merely as wind, as found in the NABRE. Another problem is the three Isaiahs referred to in the notes of the NABRE. However as patristic and biblical scholar Thomas Scheck has pointed out in his translation of Jerome's Commentary on Isaiah, the historical critical approach of three Isaiah's leads to the ridiculous conclusion that God really did not know what was going on and undercuts the whole point of this book.

When such things are pointed out to the elites, they automatically become defensive and explain in a patronizing tone that "you do not understand, you are not well educated, and you need our education to truly understand scripture" - - such pretentious pious frauds remind me of the gnostic Christians who claimed they alone knew the truth of scripture (both Origen and Irenaeus opposed these people). In fact, theses academic devotees to the historical critical method are the modern gnostics.

gob said...

Anonymous...I'm a free-range dude...

George said...

The historical-critical method is just a tool, and like any tool it can be dangerous if misused, or overused, or relied upon to do too much. I agree with James McAuley in his comment about "modern gnostics". The danger is that one can, whether intended or not, end up in some form of heresy. What is most important is what is being conveyed to us in Scripture. What is God revealing to us? While we can know something of God from the world we inhabit and which He created, we can only know anything beyond that by what He reveals to us.